To the sanctimonious thin person who handed me a note at the gym…

A reflection by Sarah

This post has little relevance for the general subject of our blog, but we decided that I should publish it here anyway. Yesterday, I (Sarah) was at the gym doing my usual workout when the woman running on the elliptical next to me finished her own workout, began looking at her phone, scribbled something down on a sheet of notebook paper, folded it, and handed it to me. I waited a bit before reading it, but when I did, I saw that the note was laden with sanctimonious presumptions about people of size. A quick Google search showed me that the woman’s note had very little originality: over half of it was a word-for-word repeat of a Facebook post that had gone viral last month, apparently. Today, I’m using our blog as a medium for responding to the person who gave me the note. Thanks to all our readers who have patiently allowed me the space to process some things related to my eating disorder recovery. The past few weeks have been challenging for me, and I’ve been uplifted by the encouragement I’ve received from readers. After this post, I’ll try to give that topic a rest for a bit, and we’ll get back to our regularly scheduled posts on celibacy, vocation, and LGBT Christian issues.

Dear Sanctimonious thin person who handed me a note at the gym,

It took me about thirty seconds to find the source of your unoriginal note. It’s all over the Internet. I found it here and in several other places. I also found a response it received from another blogger who felt a sense of solidarity with the original note’s target. I have no idea what motivated you to write out parts of it on a sheet of notebook paper and hand it to me yesterday after you had finished your workout on the elliptical next to mine. Presumably, you found something inspiring when you saw the original circulating through social media. Maybe you thought it would inspire me as well. Maybe you were once my size and were trying to give me an “it gets better” sort of message. Maybe you’ve always been the size you are now. I don’t know anything about you, but I’m going to show you a courtesy that you did not show me: I’m going to give you the chance to tell your own story instead of making one up to explain your actions. I waited a couple of minutes to read your note after you handed it to me, but when I did read it I stopped mid-workout and made a run for the locker room in attempt to find you. You were already gone, so I’m using the blog I write with my partner as an opportunity to voice what I didn’t get the chance to in person.

I was not, as your note suggests, at the gym on a noble mission to reduce my body size. At one time I was as thin as you, if not thinner. But I certainly wasn’t healthy. I came to the gym regularly, wearing cute cotton lycra outfits like yours, bearing a large water bottle and an apple or protein bar. I’d alternate between the elliptical and weightlifting, sometimes hitting up the pool for laps instead. Then, I’d go home and consume an extra large pizza, which would ultimately end up down the garbage disposal in my apartment. In those days, I spent more time purging food than eating it in the first place. Eventually, this became the fate of the apple and protein bar as well. After years of this daily routine, I reached a point at which I found myself in the emergency room every other week. My eyes were sunken, my neck was sore from swollen glands, and I spent more than a few days on a potassium drip that month. But to my knowledge, no one at the gym had ever wondered what I was doing or speculated as to why I was there amongst all those thin people—I was one of them.

That was almost seven years ago. Since then, I’ve undergone a significant amount of treatment and devoted certain seasons of life solely to recovering from my eating disorder. I made it a goal to eat normal meals and snacks every day no matter what, and generally I’ve kept to that for the past seven years. I don’t always do perfectly, and I’m not 100% behavior-free, but life is infinitely better than it has been in years past. I’ve also gained a lot of weight since then, and I’m sad to say that I didn’t realize the magnitude of social stigma against fat persons until I became one myself. I like my broccoli, avocados, and flaxseed, and I can’t stand the taste of fast food. Rarely have I exceeded normal portion sizes since my time in eating disorder treatment, yet because of my wonky metabolism I’m the largest I’ve ever been in my life. But you know what? I’ll take my current size—complete with t-shirt and sweatpants instead of cotton lycra gym outfits—over my former, unhealthy, “thin” body any day.

Sure, there are people who think I’ve gone from one extreme to the other where thinness is concerned. Yes, there are medical professionals who don’t care to hear my story and would rather assume incorrectly that I visit McDonald’s on a regular basis. Some people gawk at me for eating ice cream or a cupcake when my partner takes me out for a special treat. Women in my family make ignorant comments about my body size and will probably do so from now to kingdom come. And indeed, there are and will continue to be thin people like you who feel the need to “inspire” the rest of us by presuming to know our stories and playing on size-shaming stereotypes. No matter. I’m happier and healthier as a fat person than I ever was as a thin person. And if my body were to change and suddenly drop a bunch of weight while I’m still eating normal portions, that would be totally cool too. Whatever my body does naturally is fine by me, and I’m not interested in wearing my size—large, small, or anywhere in between—as a badge of honor.

I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt and say this as though you had the best of intentions when passing me that note: you may be unaware, but a person’s body size is not the sole indicator of health. Weight and shape aren’t everything. Weight loss is not the only reason a larger person might be at the gym. It might not be a reason at all—it certainly isn’t for me. Being healthy is not about being in a thin body, and size doesn’t tell you what or how much a person is or is not eating. Commending a larger person for going to the gym as “a step toward a healthier lifestyle” may sound admirable, but in reality that phrase is loaded with assumptions. The fat person you want to praise for “paying off the debt of another midnight snack, another dessert, another beer” could already be living a healthy lifestyle, and may have been doing so for years. For all you know, she might be eating more healthily and getting more balanced physical activity than you are. Please consider the content of my response before offering another unsuspecting gym patron a bit of your poorly contrived inspiration. And next time you have something to say to a total stranger, try speaking from your heart instead of plagiarizing from a Facebook post gone viral.



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Is there a script?

A reflection by Sarah

The first job title I acquired after moving to my college town at age 18 was “telegiving associate.” I worked for my university’s annual giving program, soliciting funds from alumni and other current and past donors. I spent five evenings a week calling these people, attempting to have real conversations as much as I was allowed. There were perks for getting large donations and consequences for finishing a shift with little success, but the most serious reproaches came when the supervisor overheard one of my coworkers or me deviating from the script. About once per shift I would hear some variation of, “I don’t care if he told you that he just lost his job. You have to ask him for a $500 donation. If he says no, ask for $300 and work your way down to $100. Follow the script. It’s there for a reason.” According to my supervisor, I had too much empathy to excel at this job. Once, I was asked to leave my shift because he saw me tearing up during a call with an alumna who had lost both arms and legs in a horrific accident. I resigned as soon as I found a position at a local independent bookstore.

I don’t have much patience for scripted conversations. I never have, and that sentiment only increases as I get older. Scripts don’t do justice to the complexities of real people with real experiences, emotions, and stories. The telegiving position was an extreme example because in that case, there was a literal script to follow as a requirement of the job, but subtler scripted conversations exist in other places too—sometimes where we wouldn’t expect them, and sometimes in contexts where the stated intention is, ironically, to create space for authenticity. Here’s one such example from a conversation I had with a therapist seven years ago while eating lunch in her office:

Therapist: “Why are you tearing your peanut butter and jelly sandwich in half?”

Me: “Because I don’t have a knife to cut it.”

Therapist: “But why do you have to eat it in halves?”

Me: “I don’t have to. It’s the way I’ve always eaten peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.”

Therapist: “Let’s talk about how that’s related to your eating disorder.”

Me: “It isn’t. It’s normal.”

Therapist: “But are you a normal eater?”

Me: “Well, no…”

Therapist: “So can you see why we need to talk about how this is related to your eating disorder?”

Me: “I’ve already told you—it isn’t related.”

Therapist: “How do you know that?”

Me: “Because it’s not the same as x, y, and z behaviors that are actually disordered. And normal eaters eat sandwiches in halves.”

Therapist: “Do you think someone in your position knows what it means to eat normally?”

Me: (Huge sigh) “This isn’t helping. This isn’t the conversation I need to be having. What I need to talk about has nothing to do with tearing a sandwich in half.”

Therapist: “Let’s do an experiment and see what happens when you eat it without tearing it in half.”

It’s clear that despite my suggesting the conversation’s direction ought to be changed, the therapist wasn’t able to move past her initial question or the right answer she already had in mind—that eating a sandwich in halves was based on some sort of illogical food rule, that it couldn’t possibly be normal. My experience didn’t make sense to her because it didn’t fit her expectations. As I’ve seen with some regularity, the sincerest, most authentic means of approaching a problem doesn’t always fit within the accepted script for conversation about a given topic. Often, the script short-circuits any attempt at real dialogue. I’m simultaneously amused and frustrated by how frequently such scripts–no matter the conversation topic–claim to “challenge black-and-white thinking” while unwittingly promoting the same old black-and-white tropes dressed up in a new wardrobe. I’ve grown accustomed to asking, “Is there a script?” when I’m concerned that I might be interacting with one. No one ever comes forth and says, “Yes, there is a script.” Most often if there is a script, the response to that question will be ambiguous. And that’s when I take my leave. I think in many cases, even those creating the script aren’t entirely aware of its existence.

All this has been on my mind because recently, I had to leave another recovery resource because of the thinly veiled script I had begun to observe there. It’s not the first time this has happened as I’ve sought resources aligned with my goals for becoming well, but every time it does occur I end up feeling very much like Donnie Darko…

…and in my most uncharitable and immature moments, I find myself falling to the temptation of Donnie’s “take the lifeline exercise card and shove it up your ass” response (revealed in the next scene, in case you aren’t familiar with the movie). Disclaimer: I wouldn’t recommend taking that approach, as it isn’t consistent with cultivating any sort of Christian vocation. In case you’re wondering about the scripted recovery conversation I recently abandoned, I made every effort to do so with grace and dignity…though I’m still fantasizing about calling up the powers that be to deliver the “I’ve got two words for you” message. Sounds like I’m in need of a good confession.

It may seem that my ramblings today have little to do with celibacy, vocation, LGBT issues, or Christianity…but the truth is, I see the same dynamic constantly playing out in conversations about all these topics. There’s a script that LGBT people, allies, and even non-allies are supposed to follow. It used to be that straight, anti-gay Christians wrote the script, which included several rounds of, “Being gay is a sin and a choice,” followed closely by the passive response, “I’ll ask God to change my sexual orientation or gender identity.” In some denominations, that’s the way the script works even today. In others, it is changing…but it’s still a script.

With gay and straight Christians in denominations accepting a modern, liberal sexual ethic, I’ve had many a conversation that looks frighteningly similar to the one with my former therapist. Take this one for example:

Liberal Christian: “Why are you celibate?”

Me: “Because I believe God has called me to celibacy.”

Liberal Christian: “But why do you have to be celibate?”

Me: “I don’t feel forced. I chose celibacy because I felt called.”

Liberal Christian: “There has to be some level at which you’re feeling forced. Let me talk with you, pray with you, and help you to understand that God will still love you if you have sex with a woman.”

Me: “I already know that God loves me, and even though celibacy isn’t easy, I see it as a joyous vocation.”

Liberal Christian: “But don’t you think it’s unnatural to deny your sexuality?”

Me: “Not having sex isn’t the same as denying one’s sexuality.”

Liberal Christian: “I don’t know how you do it. It must make you feel miserable not to let yourself have sex.”

Me: “I define my vocation in the positive, not the negative. And I’m far from miserable.”

Liberal Christian: “Have you ever experimented to see if you might be happier as a sexually active person?”

Celibacy is forced. Celibacy means lack of self-acceptance. Celibacy is misery. Celibacy is a problem to be solved. Never mind my authentic responses. Those are the right answers because the script says so.

And don’t think for a moment that denominations supporting a traditional sexual ethic while seeing a difference between orientation and action are any more adept at preventing scripted conversations. I could just as easily plug a different set of tropes and responses into the text above and replicate about 75% of conversations on sexuality I’ve had with people in my current and former Christian traditions:

Conservative Christian: “Why do you say you’re gay if you don’t have sex?”

Me: “Because I’m attracted to women. Being gay/lesbian isn’t just about sex.”

Conservative Christian: “But why do you have to talk about it the way you do? I’m okay with your blogging about sexual orientation, but you really should include a clear statement of ‘gay sex is a sin’ at least once in every post.”

Me: “I’m not interested in talking about what is or is not sinful. There are other places where you can have that conversation. I’m interested in exploring how to develop a meaningful way of life.”

Conservative Christian: “And you shouldn’t say you’re in a relationship. People might think you’re having gay sex while saying otherwise, condoning gay sex, or not accepting the Church’s teachings on sex and marriage.”

Me: “If people make assumptions about what I do or don’t think without asking me, that’s their own problem.”

Conservative Christian: “Have you thought of just trying to be single, or maybe joining a monastery?”

Different issues, different words, different ideologies, different agendas, but the message is all the same: “Follow the script. Don’t question it. Don’t deviate. The constructed narrative isn’t the problem—you are.” Rubbish. While I don’t see myself as some unique butterfly exempt from norms that other people must follow, I’ll not waste my time force-fitting myself into someone else’s scripted reality…because the truth is, no two people are exactly the same. That goes for people with eating disorders, LGBT Christians, and any other demographic you might be inclined to name. Dissimilarity matters. Complexity matters. The right answers aren’t always the real answers. And no matter how comfortable it may feel to do so, you can’t place every problem, issue, feeling, and person into a black-and-white category, denying all other aspects of lived experience.

Comment Policy: Please remember that we, and all others commenting on this blog, are people. Practice kindness. Practice generosity. Practice asking questions. Practice showing love. Practice being human. If your comment is rude, it will be deleted. If you are constantly negative, argumentative, or bullish, you will not be able to comment anymore. We are the sole moderators of the combox.

The Problematic Comparison of Homosexuality and Addiction

A reflection by Sarah

It would be impossible for me to count the number of times I’ve heard some form of comparison between homosexuality and addiction. Usually, these analogies come from well-meaning people who are trying to make sense of experiences foreign to their own. My first two questions to these folks are usually, “Do you identify as gay or have a close relationship with someone who does?” and “Do you personally experience addiction or have a close relationship with someone who does?” In most cases, the answer is either “no” to both or “yes” to one but not the other.

A number of Christian bloggers have discussed the problematic nature of comparing homosexuality with addiction, most from within the context of a liberal sexual ethic. Katie Grimes at Women and Theology raises some valid points as she argues that the comparison of homosexuality and alcoholism “fails as a comparison and it fails as an argument against homosexuality.” Another example comes from Registered Runaway, who has written on how comparing homosexuality with a variety of human problems fosters the use of shallow talking points as the Church grapples with how best to approach the LGBT community: “[Analogies] minimize us. Patronize us. They make us strain to see Christ through all of the mud being thrown.” In both posts, there’s much I can relate to as a gay person. I agree with both authors’ declarations that the homosexuality/addiction analogy is flawed, but when reading articles on this topic in general, more often than not I find myself feeling uncomfortable with discussions of where the analogy fails. I see this discomfort as rooted in the fact that I am both a gay person and a recovering addict.

Perhaps unintentionally, some–though not all–discussions about problems with the homosexuality/addiction comparison imply the sentiment, “Don’t vilify gay people. We/they aren’t like those addicts.” Frequently I hear, “Addiction ruins lives and homosexuality doesn’t,” or “Addiction occurs when a person repeatedly uses a substance or engages in a behavior, eventually becoming unable to stop, but gay people don’t choose to become gay.” I don’t contest what these statements have to say about me as a gay person. I have never seen my sexual orientation as an illness or malady, I didn’t choose to be attracted to women, and being gay certainly has not ruined my life. Yet there’s still something in the aforementioned assertions that I perceive as making light of an important aspect of my experience. In discussion of the homosexuality/addiction analogy, there must be a way forward that honors the lived experiences of gay people, addicts, and those of us lucky enough to be part of both demographics.

In this post, I’d like to make an attempt at that forward movement by approaching this topic from a different angle than I’ve seen in other places. I’d like to discuss why the homosexuality/addiction analogy does as much a disservice to addicts as it does to members of the gay community. I should state upfront that I have no professional expertise in the area of addictions or psychology. My entire education on this topic has come from the school of hard knocks. Therefore, the rest of this post will focus on my own personal experience. My intention is not to make generalizations about all gay people or all addicts. In my 29 years of life, I have faced multiple kinds of addiction. I don’t think it’s important at this time to name all of them, but suffice it to say my experience includes both substance and behavioral addictions. Because I’ve referenced it before and because it is the addiction with which I have the most recovery experience, I’ll use my struggle with bulimia as my primary example. If you’re having trouble understanding why one might conceive of bulimia as an addiction, read this. Now, I’m going to highlight three statements I’ve heard people say when they are comparing homosexuality to addiction. Their words are quoted and in bold print.

“Gay sexual desire is just like an addict’s craving for his/her drug of choice.”

In addition to the fact that I don’t know a single non-sex-addicted person, gay, straight, or otherwise, who would describe his/her sexual desires as “cravings,” I see this statement as problematic because shows a profound misapplication of the term “craving.” In addiction studies terms, a craving is a psychological urge to use a particular drug or engage in a particular behavior. Cravings are also part of withdrawal from use of said substance or behavior. When I’ve said in the past, “I’m experiencing a craving” in relation to bulimia, that has meant, “I’m experiencing the urge to acquire a large amount of food, eat it, and purge by means of vomiting.” Several years ago when I was at my lowest point, I was facing these cravings multiple times a day and my entire schedule revolved around getting food and finding places and times to devour it and purge. As I became increasingly ill, I fell into the irrational belief that I wouldn’t be able to survive a day without bulimic behaviors. When my rituals were interrupted, the cravings remained present until I found some way to engage—even if that meant the only place for carrying out the process was an alley behind the nearest grocery store, and the only consumable product I could afford that would be voluminous enough to purge was a gallon of water. Cravings are intense and baffling. Overcoming them takes an incredible amount of work and support, and it’s hard. Dealing with cravings is not as simple as applying a bit of willpower and saying, “I’m deciding not to do this behavior/use this substance, even though I desire it.”

None of what I have been describing thus far is anything remotely like my experience of attraction to other women. When I experience sexual desire, I don’t find myself thinking, “If I don’t have sex, I’m going to die.” I couldn’t possibly imagine scheduling my entire life, or even a portion of my life, around seeking out opportunities for engaging in sexual activity. Even the sex addicts I know would never conflate the level of sexual desire experienced by most people with the cravings of sexual addiction.

I find it offensive that increasingly often, non-addicted people use the word “addiction” to describe something that they enjoy immensely and couldn’t imagine living without. I’ve seen a “List of Things I’m Addicted To” trend emerge at different times on Facebook, in which people will list items such as “my best friends” or “my children.” This is a perfect example of how acceptable it has become to misapply the term “addiction.” A person who truly is addicted to his/her best friends or children has an unhealthy attachment to those people, and I seriously doubt that most would be comfortable broadcasting such a reality proudly on Facebook. As I see it, the term “craving” gets misapplied in a similar way when a person compares homosexuality to addiction. Implying that my sexual inclinations are the same as my urges for bulimic behavior belittles the constant work I’ve had to do over the years to progress in recovery.

“There might be a genetic element to homosexuality, but there’s also a genetic element to addiction, and that doesn’t mean we excuse addiction.”

There are many possibilities for interpreting this statement as problematic (I’ll be glad to discuss more with you in the comments), but here I’ll focus on my observation that it assumes both homosexuality and addiction are behaviors and nothing more. A person who makes this statement assumes that being gay is solely about having sex. I’ve been told before that because I’m celibate, there’s no reason for me to use the label “gay.” I strongly disagree and I would like to write on that topic in the future, but for now I’ll link you to the work of my friend Joshua Gonnerman, who is also a celibate gay Christian.

A person who makes this statement also assumes that addiction is solely about feeding insatiable cravings for one’s substance or behavior of choice and has nothing to do with underlying psychological and/or spiritual problems. My experience with bulimia (and other addictions too) has taught me that reducing it to its behavioral aspect not only ignores the bigger picture of what might be leading to the behavior, but also impedes real progress in recovery. I didn’t start engaging in bulimic behavior because one day I decided it would be nice to become addicted to gorging myself and vomiting. Numerous factors including nutrition, trauma, anxiety, and the way I felt about myself all played a role. In order to attain any level of recovery beyond the superficial “just stop eating and throwing up!” I had to deal with all of those complicating factors and many more. At different points, I spent months in inpatient and residential eating disorder treatment facilities. Though most of these experiences proved beneficial in helping me to stop bulimic behaviors, the majority did very little in terms of helping me construct a way of life outside the facility that would no longer include binging and purging. Those treatment experiences that were most helpful assisted me in focusing not only on behaviors, but also on the underlying reasons for engaging in those behaviors in the first place.

The work of recovering from any addiction involves an honest and thorough look at the darkest parts of oneself. Any person who has worked a 12-step recovery program knows that there is a noteworthy distinction between “dry” and “sober.” Stopping behaviors and abstaining from substances is all a person needs to do in order to maintain dryness, but doing the painful, arduous work that holistic recovery necessitates is what leads an addict to the gift of sobriety. Most people who prefer different, non-12-step types of recovery programs and approaches also would likely agree with the basic idea that recovery is about about so much more than stopping behaviors. Reducing the struggle of a person who experiences addiction to “drinking too much,” “using illegal drugs,” “eating and throwing up,” etc. effectively denies all aspects of recovery that aren’t purely behavioral, thereby implying that recovery merely involves abstinence.

“A gay person involved in a same-sex friendship or ‘celibate’ partnership is no different from an alcoholic tending bar/a prescription drug addict working in a pharmacy/a bulimic working in a restaurant, and it can only lead to temptation.”

Being in a celibate partnership, I think it’s probably obvious that I disagree with the assumptions this statement makes about gay people. At best, it incorrectly suggests that if we experience sexual attraction, we are constantly “at risk” for acting upon that attraction. At worst, it presumes that we are sexually attracted to every person of the same sex. The lack of logic becomes clear when one applies this statement to straight people’s interactions with the opposite sex. I doubt anyone would argue that a straight man must necessarily be attracted to all women, that a straight woman must necessarily be attracted to all men, or that any person in a heterosexual relationship must be playing with fire just by being in that relationship.

This statement also misrepresents addicts by implying that exposure to situations involving substances with which we struggle will necessarily trigger us to use or engage in the addictive behavior. Furthermore, it could be taken to imply that being around said substance or having the opportunity to engage in said behavior is the only possible trigger for a recovering addict. There have been times when specific foods have made me feel uncomfortable or caused negative associations that needed processing. However, when I’ve felt cravings for bulimic behavior, the impetus for those urges hasn’t been cheesecake, pizza, and tacos. Almost always, the trigger has been stressful interactions with family, seemingly unmanageable emotions, or memories of a traumatic event–and often, it’s a combination of all three. Simply being around food, even the food items I consider most challenging, does not trigger me. Being around other substances I have used in the past does not trigger me either. I know plenty of alcoholics who work as bartenders and prescription drug addicts who work as pharmacists, doctors, and nurses, and most of them do not find their work environments triggering. Of course, there are recovering addicts who do find it triggering to be in the same vicinity as the substances they have used and I do not intend to deny their experiences, but it is incorrect to suggest that this is true for all people suffering from or recovering from addiction.

I hope my personal reflections have been helpful in clarifying some ways the homosexuality/addiction comparison is problematic, both in terms of its incorrect characterization of gay people and in its false representation of addicts and addiction. While these three iterations of the analogy are the ones I hear most often, they are not the only forms of comparison people regularly make between homosexuality and addiction. If there are others you would find beneficial to discuss, feel free to leave them in the comments section.

Comment Policy: Please remember that we, and all others commenting on this blog, are people. Practice kindness. Practice generosity. Practice asking questions. Practice showing love. Practice being human. If your comment is rude, it will be deleted. If you are constantly negative, argumentative, or bullish, you will not be able to comment anymore. We are the sole moderators of the combox.

Encountering the Mirror of Erised

A reflection by Sarah

This is the second of two reflections Lindsey and I are sharing in honor of National Eating Disorders Awareness Week. You can read Lindsey’s reflection here.

“Now, can you think what the Mirror of Erised shows us all?” Harry shook his head. “Let me explain. The happiest man on earth would be able to use the Mirror of Erised like a normal mirror, that is, he would look into it and see himself exactly as he is. Does that help?”

Harry thought. Then he said slowly, “It shows us what we want… whatever we want…”

“Yes and no,” said Dumbledore quietly. “It shows us nothing more or less than the deepest, most desperate desire of our hearts. You, who have never known your family, see them standing around you. Ronald Weasley, who has always been overshadowed by his brothers, sees himself standing alone, the best of all of them. However, this mirror will give us neither knowledge nor truth. Men have wasted away before it, entranced by what they have seen, or been driven mad, not knowing if what it shows is real or even possible.”

—J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

Of all the magical objects in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, I’ve always found the Mirror of Erised most fascinating. Invisibility cloaks are interesting, yet don’t serve much purpose unless you want to hide from the world or go snooping around in places you’re not supposed to be. The Marauder’s Map is pretty awesome too; however, it will not do you much good if you aren’t actually at Hogwarts. But a mirror that shows you the deepest desire of your heart…in times of uncertainty, there’s a lot to be said for the utility of such an object, especially if you’re a teenager and have absolutely no idea what you want in life. Upon reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone at age fifteen, I remember wondering, “If I could look into this mirror, what might I see?” I hadn’t given this any thought at the time, but I had caught my first glimpse of the Mirror of Erised three years prior and was already beginning to do exactly what Dumbledore had warned Harry against—wasting away before the Mirror, not knowing whether its reflection was real or even possible.

Over the years, I’ve come to see that managing recovery from an eating disorder can be a lot like gazing into the Mirror of Erised and learning how not to be mesmerized and enticed by the vision it offers. This lesson is a lot more difficult than most people realize. To clarify, I’m not talking about the way I see my body. I’m one of the (possibly) rare people in the eating disorder recovery community who does not experience body image disturbances beyond the occasional bad hair day or frustration with dry skin during winter. Instead, what I mean is that the eating disorder’s voice, if you will, can manifest in eerily convincing ways, holding my greatest needs and deepest desires before my eyes and subtly suggesting that it has the key for opening the door to all of them.

The first time I ever purged, I was twelve. I had just begun to experience a repetitive traumatic event that would continue for a few more years. I grew up in a household that was probably stricter than most, and I wasn’t very confident that disclosure of the trauma would be taken well. I longed for the courage to discuss what was going on and the ability to sense when it would be safe to come forward, but neither ever came to me…until bulimia entered the picture. After eating something that didn’t agree with me and becoming ill during the holidays that year, I discovered that vomiting could function as an emotional release. When I felt well again a couple of days later, I found myself drawn to replicating the sense of relief that had come as a side effect…so I did replicate it. And I saw that with each instance, I felt safer, more courageous, even more powerful. It wasn’t long before I had acquired my own internal Mirror of Erised, readily displaying visions of freedom found exclusively in a box of Oreos and a stimulated gag reflex.

About two years later, I worked up the strength to tell someone about the traumatic occurrences that were still persisting. These revelations were met with disbelief, punishment, and broken trust. Though I cannot remember a single moment in my life when I did not believe in God, in my estimation he seemed absent and disinterested in the pain of a fourteen-year-old kid, so I turned my gaze almost completely to the Mirror of Erised. I had been praying that one day the truth would out, but this didn’t seem likely. I could look into the Mirror and view images of myself as an adult…strong, independent, successful, able to care for myself, never needing to trust, and consequently, never being let down by anyone ever again. Though the truth did eventually burst forth and become undeniable, by this time apologies were too little, too late. I was convinced that the Mirror held all the answers. If only I would keep staring at it intently, it could show me the path to fulfilling my wildest dreams.

I continued along this way through high school, college, and into graduate school. Over time I began experiencing symptoms of what I now know to be post-traumatic stress disorder. Engaging in bulimic behavior became my regular means for ridding myself of anxiety and flashbacks. If I had trouble focusing on a reading assignment that I didn’t enjoy, got stuck with the majority of the work on a group project, or had no idea how I could possibly maintain my grade point average while ensuring that I had enough income to finish a semester in the first place, I didn’t have time to worry about all my “nonsense” from the past…so I numbed it instead. Fixating so strongly on how I envisioned my desires for the future left me unable to see the harm I was causing in the present. “This will only be temporary,” I would tell myself. “I’ll have plenty of time to deal with this mess once I’m finished with school.” But things didn’t work out exactly as planned. Grave medical consequences eventually led me to seek treatment, rather unwillingly at first. That was seven years ago…possibly a story for another time.

I don’t like to measure the amount of recovery I’ve attained solely by my number of behavior-free days, but until this past October, by the grace of God I had been without bulimic behaviors for just over five years. A brief blip on the radar that month served as a needed reminder that the Mirror can change according to my circumstances, and it behooves me to be prepared. My internal Mirror of Erised has been part of my life for seventeen years now, and I imagine it will always be with me at some level. Everyone has to eat. It’s unavoidable. And if I can’t abstain from food, it’s all too easy to misuse it in attempt to alter realities that make me uncomfortable. Maybe that’s why getting a handle on recovery from other addictions has always been much easier for me.

Confronting the Mirror has never been straightforward or simple, and even after years of practice I’m not always sure of how to acknowledge its reflection healthily and realistically. Now when I peer into its glass I try asking myself, “Is this an ordered desire or a disordered desire? Are there healthier ways to manage it?” Sometimes, I can glance at the Mirror’s reflection, accept it as it is, and continue with life as usual. Other times, the gears begin turning inside my head and before I know it, I’m in the midst of a brawl with a voice that whispers, “I can make you feel powerful. I can provide you with safety, calmness, assurance, confidence, anything you want.” Maybe this incessant struggle with the Mirror of Erised is to be expected. But perhaps one day, God will grant me the grace to view its reflection and see only Him.

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Battling a Regenerating Hydra

A reflection by Lindsey

This week is National Eating Disorders Awareness Week. Recognizing that it’s important for those who live with the effects of an eating disorder to share their stories, we wanted to use our individual reflection pieces this week to talk about our experiences with eating disorders. Sarah first developed bulimia at 12 and has been living with its effects even as Sarah has achieved a solid amount of recovery. I began supporting Sarah in recovery almost immediately after our friendship began. In today’s post, I share a reflection about supporting someone recovering from an eating disorder.

Update: you can read Sarah’s reflection here.


Sarah and I began our friendship talking on the phone. We were incredibly nerdy Ph.D. students intrigued by one another’s work, incurably capable of geeking out regarding various academic and spiritual topics, and immensely grateful to be able to talk with another person who seemed to “get” why various tough issues we faced in life were legitimate struggles. And really, you can strike “were” out of that last sentence because every aspect of it holds true to this day. As we started to settle into a conversational routine, eventually we migrated toward G-Chat so we could communicate as we worked on our academic projects. Online chatting with a friend can open up a new degree of vulnerability. In our first G-Chat together, Sarah opened up about being in recovery from bulimia.

Offering a listening ear is the first step of supporting someone in recovery from an eating disorder. Everyone’s experience of an eating disorder is different. While people with eating disorders might share a common set of symptoms, the reasons why they have developed the symptoms in the first place are as varied as the world’s ecosystems. Though there are many and varied types of eating disorders, most people understand these in three broad categories: anorexia (restricting food), bulimia (binge eating and purging), and binge eating disorder (binge eating without purging). Generally, I’ve learned to think of eating disorders as being characterized by disordered eating in the extreme. The broad eating disorder categories clue me in on what sort of patterns I might want to watch out for on a reasonably regular basis. It has been essential that I learn to listen when Sarah tells me how specific symptoms have manifested over the course of Sarah’s life. Just when I think I’m able to predict why something may have happened, I realize that there is even more nuance to Sarah’s story.

From my limited experience, eating disorder symptoms appear to emerge from two main roots–at least where Sarah is concerned. I’m offering my perspective because I think there’s a popular perception that the genesis of an eating disorder is easily explained. As I’ve gotten to know people seeking recovery, it seems that many can move between addressing two different kinds of root concerns. Again, what I’m about to describe needs to be interpreted in light of my initial point that listening is essential when you’re trying to support someone in recovery from an eating disorder–no two people are exactly alike. I’m also trying to discuss this issue from my perspective as a person providing support. When you don’t deal with an issue firsthand, it’s easy to say things that are incredibly hurtful and ignorant. I hope that sharing my perception of the roots of Sarah’s eating disorder will help other support people on their journeys.

In the beginning of my efforts at supporting Sarah, one key thing for me to realize was that trauma can lie at the root of an eating disorder. Towards this end, an individual develops eating disorder symptoms as maladaptive coping strategies for managing something distressing that is going on in his or her universe. Eating disorder symptoms may make a person feel powerful, in control, hidden, intelligent, skilled, resourceful, or any number of other positive attributes. Trauma can throw everything off-balance because a person is desperately trying to regain some sense of normal. For some trauma survivors, using eating disorder symptoms offers a way to make the trauma more bearable. I think it’s essential for support people to realize that the kinds of trauma that might lie underneath a person’s eating disorder can be incredibly varied. I have had to learn that I know nothing about Sarah’s trauma except what Sarah chooses to share with me. I cannot guess, I cannot assume, and when Sarah does feel like sharing I cannot make demands that Sarah disclose all details at once. I regularly ask for God’s help in being a safe person with whom Sarah can be vulnerable and a prayerful person as I try to intercede for Christ to aid Sarah in the midst of recovery.

Another thing I’ve had to learn to cope with is that sometimes it seems there is no easy way for a support person to describe why person might be likely to engage in eating disorder symptoms. My personal shorthand for this absolutely confounding nature of an eating disorder is “boredom” and I know there are a lot of problems with trying to suggest that word as a root cause for eating disorder behaviors. What I’m trying to capture is that I’ve observed eating disorder behaviors can produce their own sort of thrill, present their own sort of risks, and take advantage of a person’s fantastic ability to strategize and problem-solve. As an engineer, I know I personally take an odd sense of pride in being able to discuss the physics of any random object at the drop of the hat. I envisage some sort of similar pride if a person has managed to figure out which foods produce the best highs when purging. Behaviors themselves can produce a thrill. Purging and other means of manipulating one’s body can affect a person’s brain chemistry. Sometimes the thrill might be figuring out how to continue in behaviors after normal routes to those behaviors have closed or the body starts showing signs that it can no longer keep up with the symptoms. When an eating disorder develops a mind of its own, sufferers need to be connected with an appropriate level of care by trained professionals. There’s only so much a support person can do.

But I’d also like to note that Sarah’s working on recovery has helped me with my own relationship with food. It’s never been exceptionally problematic, but like most young adults, I can sometimes forget that Sour Patch Kids and Diet Coke are not the healthiest of snacks. I’ve learned how to pack my lunch as Sarah has shared meal planning resources from different dieticians. I have developed a taste for fish as Sarah’s high protein need means we eat protein in virtually every meal and snack. Sarah has even managed to turn me on to the idea of “Breakfast” and I have no idea how that happened. We can laugh about our various food quirks, appreciating them as a part of being human. We have decided that fish tastes better when the sauce is baked on, peas can only be tackled successfully with a spoon, and it’s totally okay to use your tongue to get the last bit of hummus still on the plate. Eating together is a great joy. I honestly look forward to every meal. We have restaurants we love, cupcakeries that are “our” cupcakeries, and a multiplicity of late night dinner options.

I’ve come to see recovery from an eating disorder as battling a constantly regenerating hydra. Just when you think that you’ve cut off one head, it can spurt afresh from a new spot. If I can be so bold, I think the only way to slay an eating disorder effectively is to slash off the heads and then try to address the root issues as expediently as possible. The existence of ever-regenerating heads means that you often have to “rinse and repeat.” It can be easy to get bogged down. Even if a person has had a very long time free from engaging in behaviors, he or she can still be staring the hydra in the face minute-by-minute. You can’t look only at the externals when you want to declare victory.

As a support person, I’m struck by the persistent nature of the regenerating hydra heads. I know Sarah works hard to address the roots and to resist any symptoms. I regard myself as Sarah’s biggest cheerleader while knowing full well it is Sarah’s recovery, not mine. Nonetheless, the eating disorder can throw curveballs. During a meal, Sarah might grab my hand in a way that says, “I need your support right now.” When we’re in a grocery store, Sarah might ask me to pick up some items that are down a surprisingly hard aisle. I might get a phone call where Sarah says, “Please talk to me so I can stay present on my drive home.” I never know exactly what Sarah might need at a given moment, but we’ve talked at length about what I’m willing to do in order to support Sarah. We’ve also identified other “go-to” folks when Sarah needs the kind of support that someone else is better suited to provide.

Helping someone beat an eating disorder means listening, encouraging him or her as he or she does the hard work to slay the hydra, knowing your own boundaries for supporting him or her in stopping active behaviors, being patient, and continuing in hope. Eventually, the hydric nemesis will be no more. Freedom is possible, but gosh, it’s a really, really, really hard fight.

Comment Policy: Please remember that we, and all others commenting on this blog, are people. Practice kindness. Practice generosity. Practice asking questions. Practice showing love. Practice being human. If your comment is rude, it will be deleted. If you are constantly negative, argumentative, or bullish, you will not be able to comment anymore. We are the sole moderators of the combox.